Thursday, November 01, 2007

Open Access: Free or Not to Be

The Washington Post reports on the status of a bill in Congress that will require any research papers that are produced/published as a result of government funded research to be made freely available one year after initial publication.

At issue is whether scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health should be required to publish the results of their research solely in journals that promise to make the articles available free within a year after publication.

The idea is that consumers should not have to buy expensive scientific journal subscriptions -- or be subject to pricey per-page charges for non subscribers -- to see the results of research they have already paid for with their taxes. Until now, repeated efforts to legislate such a mandate have failed under pressure from the well-heeled journal publishing industry and some nonprofit scientific societies whose educational activities are supported by the profits from journals that they publish.

The language supporting this legislative requirement is part of an appropriations bill and thus has not been subject to the type of open debate that publishers would like - regardless as to how difficult it is to support the argument. Typically for the government they are jumping on a hobby horse which on the surface looks like an easy win (a 'mom and apple pie' issue) without fully understanding the commercial, academic and cultural issues involved. There are in my view many more egregious and expensive abuses of public trust such as commercial mining or oil drilling on public land where the accrual to private enterprise far outstrips the perceived tax injustice that publishing research is supposed to generate. But that is not necessarily the point: Two 'bads' don't equal a good.

In publishing research and academic papers the publishing industry has created an efficient and effective distribution mechanism that enables the broadest possible access to this material. Under the aegis of legislative dictate it would be entirely probable that the access to this material would deteriorate not improve as our would-be business people (Congress) envision. Having said that, the publishing business is too entrenched in their position and could do with a kick up the bum: Better this comes from a commercial reality than the legislature IMHO.

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